- Breathing through your mouth makes you sick, ugly, and a whole lot worse.
- Nose-breathing improves your oxygen levels, brain function, and even heart health.
- We look over the science, and then explain an easy daily exercise to improve your nose breathing.
Yesterday Burt was complaining about his cold. He was coughing and spluttering all over the place. I kindly asked him to shut his gob… and stop spluttering over me. He was as surprised as most people are to hear that his gob… his mouth hole… was not designed for breathing.
“Want to limit the spread of a virus? Could learning hygienic breathing be as effective as masking?”
The average person breathes over 8 million times a year. You´d expect us all to be experts. Yet most people take 8 million WRONG breaths a year. Yes, there is a right and wrong way of breathing. Incorrect breathing patterns erode your physical AND mental health.
This is the first of a 12-part series on breathing. In future posts I will dive into a lot more detail, and also share my personal experience of breathing. Including when I nearly died because I could not breathe!
For today we are going to get back to basics. Burt needs a very simple anatomy lesson. Although we all have them, the holes in our body are seldom spoken of in public. We should have 7 holes in our head:
- 2 seeing holes
- 2 hearing holes
- 1 big eating hole
- 2 breathing holes
For some reason, most modern humans have forgotten the proper use of at least one of these holes. Your mouth is for tasting, eating and drinking. Your nose is for smelling and breathing. They should work together like a happily married couple. Sometimes your nose helps your mouth out by smelling something before you put it in your mouth. Red wine is a good example. Sometimes your mouth helps your nose out, when it cannot pass air to your lungs fast enough. Like when you run up a flight of stairs or do higher intensity exercise. But they are supposed to predominantly do what they were designed to do.
About half of us have totally mixed up these holes, and relegated the nose to smelling-only duties. And for those of us who remember to nose-breathe, we still tend to “overuse” our mouths. Yes, most of us go around with our mouths gaping open, swallowing flies and everything else that happens to be in that gulp of air.
I can see Burt thinking… “What is the big deal? Air is air, right?” The problem is that your immune system’s first defences are in your NOSE, not in your MOUTH! This is how your breath should work:
WHICH HOLE TO BREATHE IN THROUGH
As you breathe in through your nose, the air passes through a network of hairs. You know those hairs that become absurdly long as you get older? Well they stop the big contaminants and particles in the air. Then as the air passes deeper, it moves into a set of chambers. Your nasal cavity has folds called turbinates, and the air is heated and filtered as it passes over these mucous membranes and your sinuses. The result is that by the time your nose-breath descends to your lungs, it is clean, humidified, and warm. Yes, nose breathing substantially heats and humidifies the air, reducing lung stress and allowing better oxygen extraction. This mechanism is as effective as many professional level air filters, reducing viruses and bacteria by 98-99%. Yes, compare that to the effectiveness of a soggy mask… should we be surprised that mother nature already had thought of something more effective than a soggy mask? Sadly our respiratory laziness and forgetfulness means that most of us have lost this defence mechanism. I would love to see a comparison of deaths by respiratory virus in mouth-breathers versus nose-breathers. I am confident that there would be a significant difference. The science is clear… nose-breathing is more healthy.
WHICH HOLE TO BREATHE OUT THROUGH
Although it is sometimes nice to “sigh” through your mouth as you exhale, it is best to breathe out through your nose. If you only breathe in through your nose, then all of those particles which were so efficiently filtered will keep migrating into your body. You need to breathe them back out. Think of the outbreath as “cleaning your nose.” I don’t mean you need to snot on your friends with every breath, but if every breath expels some tiny particles, then the next in-breath is more likely to be clean.
BREATH HYGIENE IS SIMPLE
Yes, Burt, it really is that simple. Hygienic breathing hinges first and foremost on using your breathing holes for breathing. This even applies to low-level exercise, but at higher intensities it is better to use both.
At this point, Burt was getting agitated, and protested “but look at me, I have used only my mouth for the last thirty years and I am doing just fine.”Being Burt´s best friend, I thought it was time to tell him the scientific truth. “No Burt”, I said in the most caring of manners, “You are a stupid, smelly, ugly, ruddy-faced, sick and panting mess.” Burt looked a combination of stunned, indignated, and ready to hit me. So I hit him first. I hit him with some breathing science:
SIX REASONS WHY MOUTH BREATHING IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH
- Mouth-breathing makes you stupid. Well not quite, but one excellent brain MRI study showed showed that nose-breathing increased brain connections and concluded that “oral breathing is an inappropriate method for intellectual activity.”
- Mouth-breathing makes you smelly. It dries out your mouth, and is linked with gum disease – contributing to bad breath.
- Mouth-breathing makes you ugly. It deforms your face- your dentist will tell you that the muscle tension and open mouth posture will eventually narrow your dental cavity, causing “long face syndrome.” This is most pronounced in children.
- Mouth-breathing makes you ruddy. Ruddy means red-faced. Yes, mouth breathing raises your blood pressure, making you more red-faced.
- Mouth-breathing fails to humidify and clean the air, making you more susceptible to respiratory bugs. It makes you sick.
- Mouth-breathing makes you pant more. With less oxygen per breath, your breathing rate is higher.
“Listen Burt,” I said, “if you need more convincing, here are a few additional reasons why you should nose-breathe.”
- Nose breathing increases blood oxygenation by 10-18%. This means your lungs can also take a rest, making you pant less!
- Nose breathing releases chemicals which reduce your blood pressure and is good for your heart. I will explain more about this in a later post in this series, but nose-breathing really helps out your heart.
HOW TO PRACTISE NOSE BREATHING
Burt was upset, but resolved to make a change, so it was time for some action.
In his marvellous book, Breath, The New Science of Lost Art, James Nestor describes the practice of mouth-taping. No, this is not a follow-on to the mischievous humour about mixing up holes. For real, James Nestor explores the idea of taping your mouth shut, in particular when sleeping, in order to train your body to breathe through your nose. I know many people who do this and swear by it; fewer respiratory problems, less snoring, and better overall daytime breathing hygiene. I do recommend Nestor´s book, but there are far easier ways to get started. [By the way, this and many other books are available to clients under chiropractic care with us here in Marbella— check in our Lending Library]. In a later post, I will describe how your back and neck posture affects how you breathe. In particular, we will look at how people under chiropractic care can improve their sleeping posture, and this can allow you to reduce nose-breathing. Sleep apnoea has been linked to altered neck posture. Improving posture can mean less snoring and fewer breathing problems overnight. But to finish this week’s post, let’s review a few simple things which we can do daily, to start to wake our noses to their true purpose in life.
1. ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING
In a later post we will look at how humming through the nose can change the chemical balance in your body. Today, let’s see how alternate Nostril breathing enlivens our nose sensations. It is best to be seated for this exercise, but you can equally do it standing in a relaxing place, or even lying down.
Using your right hand, you are going to gently “pinch” the soft part of your nose between your right thumb and index finger. But you are only going to pinch one side at a time. It may sound complicated, but the goal is simple:
in left—out right—in right—out left—repeat
- Using your thumb, block your right nostril.
- As you breathe in deeply, note how cold the air feels as it passes through your left nostril.
- Breathe all the way to the “top”, fully filling your lungs.
- Hold for a moment, you will notice that the sense of pressure in your left sinuses dissipates.
- Pinch also with your index finger, your nose is fully closed. Now gently release your thumb, so your right nostril is open.
- Let the air go gently, trying to let it flow.
- Notice how warm it feels, perhaps even your right sinus feels different.
- Go all the way to the end of the out-breath, but do not force it.
- Keep your finger on your left nostril!
- Now breathe back in through the right nostril, again paying lots of attention to the sensation in both sides of your nose and sinuses.
- Its time to breathe out through the left, so pinch both sides, and then release your index finger.
- Let the breath go through the left nostril, now paying attention to the sensation in your face in general.
- Repeat 6-12 times, ideally 2-3 times per day.
Bonus: You can gently lift your chin on the inbreath, and lower it on the outbreath. This “nodding” can become hypnotic and very relaxing.
2. SHUT YOUR MOUTH
The second practice I encourage you to try, is to simply “shut up.” Unless you are eating, speaking or breathing really hard, your gob should mostly be shut. This includes exercise! Yes, doing lower intensity exercise, including walking, with your mouth closed forces you to open your nasal passages. This increases blood flow to your nose, literally increasing your nose’s fitness.
3. WHAT IF YOU CANNOT BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE?
This is a common problem for many people. “I cannot nose-breathe, my nose is always blocked. Or… “I have chronic sinusitis, nose-breathing is sore”. Much in the same way that chiropractic care to improve your neck relieves not just neck pain, but also headaches and migraines, chiropractic care can also affect your sinuses both directly and indirectly. Some people, especially children, need specific cranial work, which may release the bones of the face and sinus, easing the flow through those areas. But releasing the pressure on the nerves at the top of your neck, especially the atlas and axis, can affect the soft-tissue tone in between your ears and sinuses. It is very normal for people with chronic sinus problems to improve under chiropractic care. My recommendation would be to get checked by someone properly qualified, get adjusted, and practice the above exercises. You may be surprised by the huge changes in your overall health.
WHAT’S UP NEXT?
Part 2 of this mini-series will deal with my version of what is called the “Complete breath”, which stretches your diaphragm and gets you to use the whole of your lungs. It has also been called the yogi breath. In particular we will look at how recent research on “cyclic sighing” is more effective than even mindfulness and meditation training, when it comes to relaxation. I will also be sharing how the complete breath is part of my own daily meditation routine.